Adapted from Aravind Adiga's Man Booker Prize winner of the same name, The White Tiger stars Adarsh Gourav as Balram Halwai recounting his rags-to-riches journey. From his humble start as a tea stall worker to being a rich man's chauffeur and finally as an entrepreneur, Halwai uncovers that the real trap-jaw of servitude is not systematic oppression but the mind.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
I'd first read Adiga's novel a long time ago and Balram Halwai's affability and the dark humorous portrayal of India's inequality had always stuck out to me. In this adaptation into film—while trapped in development hell for the longest time—The White Tiger never loses those two aspects of the novel.
A major part of the film's charm goes to actor Adarsh Gourav in his first international leading role as Halwai. Reflecting the character's obscurity to his escape from his lower-born roots, prior to The White Tiger, Gourav's modest CV includes film roles in Mom and Rukh and as the lead vocalist in the band, Oak Island.
Gourav is charismatic as Halwai. His smile is winsome and disarming as his gratefulness to his masters takes on an Iago-like menace later in the film. If his performance does not garner him acting awards, I hope it does open doors to more opportunities.
Gourav's role as Halwai is further shaped by Priyanka Chopra Jonas' Pinky and Rajkummar Rao's Ashok, whom Halwai is bound to. Ashok is the son of the landlord who ruled over Halwai's village. Schooled overseas, Ashok is disdainful to his family's attitude to the lower caste… until when he's able to exploit it to free himself from repercussions. Pinky is the product of a feminist, who is brought up overseas. Having parents who run a bodega in America, she understands what it means to be an outsider. Her presence in The White Tiger serves to shake up the status quo but her efforts to help Halwai can only go so far. But Pinky's fiery perspective does spark something in Halwai that pushes him to break out of his indentured mindset.
Halwai talks about Indian society as a rooster coop—where people are caged in, just waiting docilely to have their heads loped off. He understands that and seeks to escape that fate. In fact, he sees himself as a white tiger—a great cat of such rarity, surely its existence puts it heads above all other?
Except, we're reminded of how entrenched the caste mindset has taken root when Halwai witnessed that Bengal beast behind bars at the zoo. That despite his efforts to break away, Halwi's still reliant on Ashok and Pinky.
You can't help but associate The White Tiger with another Indian rags-to-riches film, Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, you can even see former as a rebuttal to the latter's pollyannaish ending. Unlike Slumdog, The White Tiger is an Indian film about India and one that casts a more realistic lens on the country's damning social inequality.
The White Tiger has a tinge of a fable with characters like the Stork and the Mongoose but that's where the fairytale ends. It's a cautionary tale, a mirror on India's society, where its denizens are trapped in the mindset of status. But for people like Malwai, sometimes to only way to game the caste system is to be as vicious as the ones at the top of the food chain.
There is nothing that drives home the point better than the end of the film. As globalisation rakes at the doorsteps of India, Malwai's message to Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is suddenly intended for us, the viewers. Malwai stares at us and intones, "I've switched sides. I've made it. I've broken out of the coop." How telling of the white tiger, who is untethered by the system and also the fourth wall.
What we didn't like
Not really a diss but we wondered that given the vast narrative wealth in The White Tiger, whether the story would have worked even better as a one-season series.
What to look out for
Gourav, who was trained under the doyen of Hindustani classical music, Guru Chandrakant Apte, displays his singing chops during his scene with Rao belting out "O Murari Re".
The White Tiger is exclusively streaming on Netflix.